Opinion: If the Future Runs on Batteries, Will They Be Made in New Jersey?

Innovative energy storage systems can mean a greener, more affordable future -- and a new role for NJ's advanced R&D

Is the holy grail of the power industry – energy storage systems that are cheap, reliable, and safe enough to displace generating facilities — finally within reach? Or at least within sight?

Maybe so.

Best of all, an entrepreneurial New Jersey company may be leading the way to a greener, more affordable future.

Events from the past week strongly suggest that a new breed of power storage batteries are becoming capable of meeting the diverse needs of electric utilities and their customers.

But first a bit of background.

It has long been known that batteries have the theoretical potential to substitute for conventional high-tension lines, providing what is often called “virtual transmission.” They can also displace “peaker” plants that run only at times of highest power demand on hot summer days. This saves utilities wear and tear on these fast-start units while also reducing air pollution otherwise emitted from those typically inefficient plants.

Further, as utilities come to rely more on “intermittent” renewable energy sources — like solar photovoltaic (PV), which works only when the sun shines, and wind turbines that produce electricity only when the wind is blowing — batteries can “level the load.” They do this by storing electrons when the sun is brightest or the wind is strongest and then quickly discharging power as clouds block the sun or the wind stops blowing.

(If you’re really serious about energy storage systems, consider wading through Electricity Energy Storage Technical Options, sponsored by the Electric Power Research Institute [EPRI]).

Anyway, it’s been a good few weeks for power storage advocates, especially for one Garden State company. On April 30, Con Edison announced it had entered into a “trail-blazing partnership to install and test” a grid-scale battery produced by Eos Energy Storage located (appropriately enough) in Edison Township.

According to Con Edison, “energy storage is one of the last frontiers for electric utilities, and Eos Energy Storage holds promise for smooth integration” with the utility system. Importantly, this pilot project is also supported by funding from the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA).

Eos has developed a new battery designed as a “load leveler.” That is, it will store power generated at night when electricity is cheaper and then discharge it to the grid during the day when power is most expensive. The financially astute out there will recognize this as a technological application of “arbitrage,” the fine art of buying low and selling high.

Eos accomplishes this with its proprietary “zinc air hybrid cathode technology,” which has achieved efficiencies of 90 percent or more in the Edison lab.

Zinc air batteries, according to Eos, are unlike today’s commercial-scale lithium-ion batteries (the technology that failed Boeing’s new Dreamliners, grounding them for several months after the batteries overheated).

A knowledgeable engineer has described lithium batteries as “two halves of a bomb separated by a thin membrane.” This is not an issue with zinc, which is widely and safely used.

Even more good news for battery proponents comes from an unlikely source. On May 2, the New York Times reported that Bertrand Piccard — a Swiss psychiatrist and a member of the two-man team that circled the globe nonstop in a balloon — will soon embark on a cross-country flight from California to New York in a solar-powered airplane (the “Solar Impulse”) using batteries to fly at night.

According to the article, the plane is “powered by 12,000 photovoltaic cells that cover its wing span” — longer than a Boeing 747’s — “charging batteries that let it fly day and night.” (Disclosure: Mr. Piccard is this writer’s cousin by marriage and a most genial host during recent visits to Switzerland.)

So with all this good news, what if anything is New Jersey doing to incubate and grow this new energy source, competing with New York for the honors? Not much but that may be changing for the better.

Since 1999 the societal benefits charge — a surcharge on gas and electric bills — has provided millions of dollars to support a Clean Energy Fund that has been dedicated to paying rebates for energy efficiency and (until recently) renewable-energy projects.

But this binary focus may soon change. In early April the Clean Energy Program (CEP) of the Board of Public Utilities unveiled its Comprehensive Resource Analysis plan. If approved by the BPU, the proposal will use $379.25 million from the SBC to fund a diverse complex of energy efficient and renewable energy projects.

And included for the first time in the 63-page, single-spaced petition is energy storage. Tucked away on page 56 is a proposal to match — if not exceed — New York’s investment in a pilot battery-project:

“Staff believes that energy storage holds much promise as a tool that can address problems and opportunities associated with the intermittent nature of renewable energy systems, including wind and solar. Therefore, staff recommends a funding level of $5 to $10 million over the next 4 years for energy storage pilot projects.”

For 2014, the proposed budget is $2.5 million for pilot projects like the Eos undertaking.

Left for later clarification is how to qualify for a share of these funds, so key details remain unwritten. But the important point is this: Energy storage is finally getting some overdue attention from the BPU, which controls funding levels and project selection.

Now is the chance for New Jersey, a longstanding national leader in innovative R&D — from Edison to Bell Labs to Eos – to provide a long-term home for the holy grail of electricity storage projects, including a manufacturing facility for advanced batteries.

Will the state seize this opportunity or let it slip away? Stay tuned.

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